By David Rosenberg
From the start, Moshe Feiglin seemed liked a long-shot.
The former settler activist and founder of ‘Zo Artzeinu’ (This Is Our Land) movement who first entered the public sphere protesting against the 1993 Oslo Accords was hardly taken seriously when he joined the Likud in 2000 and vowed to take control of the party with his Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership) faction.
With a sedition conviction, stemming from his involvement in Zo Artzeinu protests, under his belt and criticism for a slew of controversial statements leading mainstream Israeli media outlets to portray him as a far-right rabble-rouser, Feiglin’s attempt to influence the Likud by registered thousands of young activists to the party appeared gimmicky; more a publicity stunt than a political revolution.
Feiglin versus the Likud
For the first few years, the effort did not appear to bear fruit. After nearly six years in the Likud, Feiglin managed to net just 12% of the vote in a primary challenge to party chief Binyamin Netanyahu, coming in third. In the run-up to the 2006 Knesset elections, Feiglin was barred from running for a spot on the Likud’s Knesset list over his 1997 sedition conviction.
Over the next decade and a half, however, Feiglin’s influence within the party grew, as his share of the primary vote in repeated challenges against Netanyahu grew from 12% to 23%. Feiglin even snagged a safe position on the party’s 2009 election list, seemingly guaranteeing him a seat in the 18th Knesset – until party officials managed to demote him from 20th to 36th on the list.
Despite efforts by the party establishment, Feiglin finally managed to win – and retain – a realistic spot in the party’s Knesset list in 2013, entering the 19th Knesset.
Two years later, however, after finally securing representation in the Knesset, Feiglin was again forced out of a realistic spot on the Likud’s list.
Unlike in 2009, Feiglin, who had long insisted that the ultimate goal of taking over the Likud from the inside was within reach, finally soured on the party, quitting the Likud and planning the formation of a new independent faction.
Years in the Wilderness
For most lone MKs who attempt to establish new political movements after leaving established ones behind, failure is the rule.
In 2013, former Shas MK Chaim Amsalem, who bolted his former political home after he chided the party’s conservative stances on conversion to Judaism and other issues of religion-and-state, had high hopes when he launched the new Am Shalem party. Despite the new faction polling above the electoral threshold for much of the campaign season, and projected to win between 2-4 seats, the party ultimately received just 1.2% of the vote, falling short of the 2% minimum.
Two years later, former Shas chief Eli Yishai teamed up with Yoni Chetboun, an MK who had defected from the Jewish Home, to form the Yahad party. Despite running with the right-wing Otzma Yehudit party, the ticket also failed to clear the threshold.
This year, former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who quit the Likud – and the Knesset – in 2016, folded his newly-established Telem faction into the larger Israel Resilience Party, after polls showed that a solo run had no chance of clearing the electoral threshold.
Defying the Odds
Given the recent history of new factions launched by solo MKs or former MKs, as well as the relatively high electoral threshold (3.25%), it was hardly a surprise that Feiglin’s new Knesset bid at the helm of the Zehut (Identity) party was widely ignored both by pollsters and the media.
Despite the occasional poll suggesting the party could cross the threshold, the consensus seemed to be that Feiglin’s career had peaked during his tenure in the Knesset.
But for the past four years, the 56-year-old former activist has insisted that the naysayers – and the polls – are wrong.
Rebranding his political movement as a fusion of the Israeli right’s traditional support for the Land of Israel with a quasi-libertarian approach to economics and some civil liberty issues, Feiglin consciously cast Zehut not as yet another rightist faction with its power base in the settlements and Jerusalem, but as a big-tent classical liberal party appealing to a wide audience.
The faction’s first conference, held in Tel Aviv, drew a far more diverse array of supporters than the largely religious Zionist base of Manhigut Yehudit. Zehut’s support for the legalization of marijuana has even drawn some activists from the Israeli left, including the head of the party’s Eilat branch, who abandoned the far-left Meretz faction to join Zehut.
Who Is Zehut?
In an increasingly crowded political map, with a plethora of small right-wing parties, Feiglin has brushed off both criticism and overtures for a joint list, denying claims Zehut is liable to simply waste more votes from the right-leaning National Religious camp.
A Maagar Mohot published last Wednesday by Israel Hayom suggested Zehut does indeed draw on a more diverse range of voters than more sectorial factions, like the Jewish Home, National Union, and Otzma Yehudit. The survey asked voters which party they backed in the previous election, and how they would vote if new elections were held today.
According to the poll, which shows Zehut crossing the threshold with four seats, more than a quarter (the equivalent of 1.12 seats) of the party’s voters come from Yesh Atid and Kulanu – more than the number coming from the Jewish Home and National Union (equivalent to 0.96 seats).
The largest number of voters came from the Likud, amounting to the equivalent of 1.5 seats, with roughly half as many coming from Yisrael Beytenu.
In or Out?
The Maagar Mohot survey, one of two the company publicized last week, shows Zehut with four seats, narrowly clearing the threshold.
While four seats is essentially the lowest possible number a party can win will still entering the Knesset (though it is technically possible to win 3.9 seats-worth of votes and enter with three mandates), the prospect of Zehut winning four seats has been hitherto seen as an outlier, rather than a serious possibility.
Yet over the past 17 days, Zehut has cleared the threshold in three polls, winning four, four, and five seats respectively.
Does that mean Zehut is a shoe in, then, to enter the Knesset?
Polling for the Knesset is notoriously difficult. In contrast to the United States where there are two major parties, and thus two major candidates for presidential elections, in Israel, there are currently over a dozen factions in the Knesset, with half a dozen more considered viable enough to be included in any given poll.
With sample sizes around 500 to 800 respondents, that results in a margin of error of 4 to 5% plus or minus (or 8-10% total) for every faction.
In 2015, the Yahad party’s joint ticket with Otzma Yehudit cleared the threshold in roughly two-thirds of polls in the run-up to the election. Yet the ticket still failed to win any seats, getting 2.97% of the vote, short of the 3.25% threshold.
In a poll of 500 respondents, such a narrow difference in the margin is the equivalent of a single respondent. In other words, if a poll surveyed 500 respondents and showed Yahad winning four seats, there were likely 16 people polled who said they would vote for the party, when in reality, only 15 people out of every 500 voters really did. With anywhere from 15-20% of voters still undecided the week before any given election, oversampling a party’s supporters by one respondent is hardly surprising.
It is also worth noting that all three of the polls which found Zehut crossing the threshold were conducted by the same polling agency – Maagar Mohot.
Nevertheless, the party’s (relative) success in recent polls is significant.
While the precise results of individual polls mean little, trends in polls – particularly trends in the aggregate – tend to be far more useful.
Last month, Zehut polled at below 1% in all but two polls – a Maagar Mohot survey which showed the party receiving two seats-worth of votes (but not clearing the threshold), and a Panels poll showing Zehut with 2.1% of the vote (also worth roughly two seats).
In February, however, three of the four Maagar Mohot polls projected Zehut clearing the threshold, with the fourth giving it two seats, the same as last month. Looking at all polls by the firm, Zehut’s monthly average rose from one seat to three – a threefold increase. And, perhaps most importantly, the trend for Zehut in the poll is still upward – hitting five seats in the latest poll by Maagar Mohot.
Most other polling firms now show Zehut receiving the equivalent of two seats – still beneath the threshold, but an increase over the party’s performance in those polls last month.
With Zehut beginning to appear like a viable choice capable of clearing the threshold, it would not be surprising at all if the party were to continue to rise in the polls, perhaps even clearing the threshold in surveys by other polling firms.
What To Look For
Feiglin didn’t hesitate to capitalize on his party’s recent rise in the polls, declaring last Thursday that the sign “is beginning to shine” on Zehut.
“The people of Israel are eager for good news, for vision, meaning and freedom – our nation has identity [‘zehut’].”
Feiglin even claimed that an in-depth survey suggests that if the party’s entry into the Knesset were assured, Zehut could win as many as 15 seats.
As of now, however, the party’s future in the Knesset is far from certain.
If the party is, in fact, poised to cross the threshold on the eve of the elections, it will likely be manifested in the polls in several ways.
First, Zehut will clear the threshold in a majority of surveys conducted by all or most of the pollsters, and not only those of one or two companies.
Secondly, the party will average at least four seats, with some polls showing Zehut winning significantly more (six to seven).
Given the margin of error and the different methodologies used by various pollsters, if any given party is actually poised to win a given number of seats (say, 10), we would expect to see the polls clustering around 8-12 seats. If the party’s best results in the polls are 10, then it probably won’t win that many, unless there is something systematic causing an undercounting of the party’s voters, or the kind of last-minute surge the Likud enjoyed in 2015, and Kadima received in 2009.
Finally, the trend in the polls will either be upward for Zehut, or will stabilize at an average of at least five seats. If the party is still averaging four to five seats in the polls, but is on a downward trend, fair-weather fans of the party are probably peeling off as election day approaches and they start to tell pollsters who they really are planning to vote for, rather than who they would prefer to support if the electoral threshold were not a factor.
Am Shalem, for instance, was polling at just under the threshold ahead of the 2013 election, but plummeted in the final polls just before the election, as supporters realized the party was unlikely to pass the threshold, and feared wasting their votes.